A lesson in why you should test your emergency response systems

A lesson in why you should test your emergency response systems
02 September 2020

This guest blog was written by a member of the Rotterdam fire service, in conjunction with the cefic Intervention in Chemical transport Emergency (ICE) programme of which NCEC is a part. NCEC were not involved in the response, however as this is an important lesson in not just having an emergency response system in place, but ensuring it is robust and operational at all times we wanted to share the scenario. All names and companies have been anonymised.

The sun is sweltering over Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe, surrounded by oil and chemical industry infrastructure. The day has been hot and busy but unremarkable for one Fire Service Hazmat Officer as he sits down to dinner. All that was about to change…


The phone rings. It’s the on-duty hazmat fire service officer. He’s received a call from the Environmental Office with news of an incident at one of the large container terminals in the area. Oil was leaking from a tank on board a cargo ship. Oil that was supposed to be hermetically sealed into a container to protect its highly reactive contents – sodium.

This silvery-white metal can react violently with water and water vapour, so it needs to be transported submerged in oil or inert gas such as dried air or dry nitrogen gas, then sealed in a closed unit. With oil leaking out, it’s only a matter of time before air would start to get in – moist sea air. The sodium could start to react with the moisture, producing hydrogen gas which, in turn, would displace more oil from the container allowing more moist air in. Worst case scenario – the sodium would ignite, and fire could break out spreading through the ship and beyond.

I abandon dinner and immediately go into information gathering mode while the duty officer makes the 40-minute trip down to the container terminal.

The dangerous goods officer on site confirmed they are dealing with an oil leak from a 20ft tank containing Sodium UN1428 (GevI X423). Standard procedure would be to unload the tank to a specially designed incident location on site but, as the final destination was not Rotterdam, this had not been done. Knowing the dangerous properties of sodium, I strongly advise that this is done immediately.

The Rotterdam Harbour Authority checked the loading list to see what else is on board. 


Information comes through that there are four more containers loaded with approximately 23 tonnes of sodium on board. These containers are checked and, luckily, are found to be intact. They can continue their journey.


I request and receive a photograph of the container. An experienced officer can ascertain a lot from a decent photo. Using the information in the photo, I manage to trace the transport company and soon find the relevant Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) on their website. However, there is no specific information about how the sodium was transported; under inert gas or oil or what kind of oil.


A photo of the transport document is sent through. Alas, there is still no specific information on how the sodium is being transported. But, there is a big red colored stamp on the transport document indicating a US based emergency company with a 24/7 emergency number to call. This should be a huge help.

Ring… ring… ring… no answer.

Try again.

Ring… ring… ring… answerphone! So much for 24/7 support.

Disappointed, but not giving up, I call the transport company. No answer…

Meanwhile, oil is still leaking from the container and we are no closer to knowing the specifics of the type of oil and exactly how the sodium is packed.


Word comes through that the leaking container has been put on a special liquid-tight emergency transport-unit and taken to the emergency location on the container terminal.

Looking back at the MSDS there is some information about filling the vapour space with inert gas. You also could read this as vapour space above the oil. It’s not conclusive.


Running out of official sources of information, I turn to my personal network of dangerous goods specialists. I call an emergency manager at one of the biggest refineries in Holland.


My contact advises me that paraffin oil is the most likely choice for shipping sodium. He is willing to provide us this oil on short notice. Kerosene is also sometimes used but kerosene can be identified by its particular smell and reports from site were that the oil was odourless.


I ask for help from the Cefic/ICE National Centre. They put me in contact with BASF in Antwerp. Within 30 minutes they provide a telephone number in France – the number of the sodium producer… which I already tried to contact.


My colleague contacts the sodium producer. It’s past office hours and only the security team are there. They only speak French. Someone can be in touch in the morning, meanwhile, the oil in the sodium tank needs topping up and making safe now, but what kind of oil is it?


Finally, contact with the 24hr emergency response service in the US. But there’s a technical fault and the conversation is cut off.


Contact is re-established with the emergency line almost an hour later. They can’t provide immediate advice, and so need to speak to the manufacturer. We wait for their response.


The mystery of the oil is solved finally solved, five hours after I receive the initial call. The receiver of the container says the leaking oil is thermal oil used for heating up the sodium waiting to unload. Those on site can now make the situation safe.

Key lessons

Luckily, this situation didn’t end with a sodium fire that could have caused harm to sailors and dock workers, polluted the sea and air, damaged the ship and port infrastructure and caused negative press for the companies involved. Not to mention severe supply chain implications which could affect multiple businesses. But if the situation was as bad as we feared, the delay in getting advice on the nature of the oil would have made the situation worse.
An SDS should contain as much relevant information as possible to help in the event of an incident. When preparing documents, carefully assess what specific information might be useful in case of an incident and include it in your MSDS and transport documentation.

In this incident, the 24hr emergency response number was not reliable – it was an outsourced provider who simply did not answer the phone for several hours, and then couldn’t immediately help when the phone was answered. Emergency response systems should be tested. Can you trust your provider to be there when it matters? Does 24hr mean 24hr every day? Can they provide actual support and advice to the caller, or are they providing information from an SDS and referring back to the manufacturer or transporter?

Does your emergency response provider regularly test their equipment to prevent technical faults and have a back-up system in place?

Planning and preparation can prevent many incidents occurring but inevitably accidents do sometimes happen. Those organisations who have a robust, tested emergency response provision are usually able to resolve incidents faster and more safely helping to protect people, the environment, their assets and their reputation – ultimately reducing any negative impact on profits.
Although NCEC were not the emergency response organisation in this instance, had this call happened in the UK then we would have been the point of additional support as the UK’s ICE centre. Our emergency responders are qualified chemists with significant experience of emergency response, who can provide immediate and actionable advice to emergency responders in these circumstances. We have an incredibly resilient service offering, with each process and system having at least two levels of redundancy, ensuring that every call will be received.